On Quiet Quitting

As someone who has thought a lot about worker productivity & engagement over the years, watching the #QuietQuitting trend unfold across the globe over the past few months has been fascinating.

From what I can tell, “quiet quitting” is actually a confluence of several macro trends, listed here in order of short- to long-term:

  • Growing disconnect / distrust between managers and employees due to poorly executed remote work arrangements (misaligned expectations, lack of communication, etc.)
  • Trauma and exhaustion from the COVID-19 pandemic
  • Backlash against #hustle culture
  • Generational conflict between “boomers” and millennials / Gen-Z
  • Ongoing lack of engagement by employees at their jobs (polls consistently show ~20% of U.S. employees are actively disengaged)
  • Increasing income inequality and limited social mobility (futility in closing extreme wealth gaps)
  • Historic exploitation of labor in capitalist systems

The phenomenon is hardly isolated to the western world, however. China’s 躺平 (“lying flat”) and 摆烂 (“let it rot”) movements were in full force before “quiet quitting” even entered the American zeitgeist. Both reflected similar underlying issues, though it should be noted that the baseline work culture is notoriously harsher in Asia.

Of course, not all jobs are the same – service or “essential” employees will tend to experience more blatant exploitation, while remote-eligible “knowledge” workers will be more likely to grow dependent on their careers for self-actualization and thus are more exposed to mental health risks. The heterogeneity of job types as well as the many interpretations of “quiet quitting” make it quite difficult to discuss this topic in a truly universal way. It also muddies the recent backlash against quiet quitters because it’s rarely clear what aspects of employee disengagement are being targeted. It makes some even question whether this is even a real trend.

Like most issues in the real world, there are elements of truth on all sides that should be acknowledged. Enough digital ink has been spilled on covering the battle between employees and their employers though, so here I will simply share some ideas for actions one could take if they’re feeling compelled to disengage from their work in an unhealthy way. (As opposed to a healthy way, which is to just set reasonable boundaries with your employer.)

Seek work that aligns with your personal values

For those blessed with a choice of livelihoods or organizations to work in, my most frequent career advice has consistently been to explicitly write out and stack rank one’s values and use them to guide major decision-making. I’ve done the exercise multiple times myself to decide between job offers, and values have also played a large role in my recent career shift.

As an example, if you highly value working in a collaborative environment with more empathetic coworkers, you may realize you prefer smaller or lesser-known organizations versus larger or more elite organizations where there is more competitive behavior or politicking.

If you choose to live a life that’s not true to your values, you will end up dealing with mental dissonance on a daily basis – this is a major factor that leads to dreading work, losing your motivation/energy, and accelerating burnout.

Avoid exploitation if possible

Speaking of burnout – it’s just the natural result of an extended period of hard work paired with lack of a commensurate reward. The reward expected could be in the form of monetary compensation, status, or just acknowledgement/recognition. If one hasn’t made their expectations clear, this might be remedied with better communication. However, if expectations are clear and work performance is strong but an employer repeatedly fails to deliver the appropriate rewards for the efforts, this could be a sign of exploitation.

This could be as explicit as Uber reducing the share of take-home pay for their drivers, or more subtle in situations such as a manager not providing opportunities to grow one’s scope of responsibility over time. In any case, the employee needs to carefully evaluate the degree of exploitation, decide whether to pursue their goals elsewhere, and potentially (and gracefully, without burning bridges) make plans to exit.

Notably, some degree of labor exploitation is inevitable in a capitalistic society. One could try to avoid the worst of this by finding a role protected by a union, or perhaps in the public sector that has no profit motive for exploitation. Some more enterprising folks have tried “overemployment” (a.k.a. working multiple jobs) to reverse-exploit employers, but the added stress is likely not worthwhile.

Develop a resilient & growth-oriented mindset

If you’re falling into disengagement but not in a position to easily leave your employer (for financial or other reasons), then it may be an opportune time to work on yourself instead.

The top priority should be to develop mental resiliency, so you will be able to avoid a depressive spiral and prepare yourself for future challenges. Mindfulness meditation is a great tool for this – apps like Headspace are a great way to dive in!

In the long-term, a surefire way to create more optionality in your life is to adopt a growth mindset (as opposed to a fixed mindset) and keep learning new skills. As you uplevel your skillset, you will naturally gain the leverage you need to make big moves.

The conversation around #QuietQuitting is unlikely to wane anytime soon, given all the macro trends mentioned above. However, I hope that some of these ideas can elevate the conversation beyond social media memes and ultimately inspire us all to seek better work-life harmony in the long run!

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